Society and the Supernatural in Song China

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:37
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SOCIETY AND THE SUPERNATURAL IN SONG CHINA. By Edward L. Davis. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. Pp. xi + 355; appendix; glossary; index. Cloth, $60.00, ISBN 0-8248-2310-9; Paper, $24.95, ISBN 0-8248-2398-2.


Based on the author's Ph.D. dissertation (University of California at Berkeley, 1994), this well-researched study focuses on the relation of Chinese society with the supernatural and on experiences of the supernatural as an aspect of social relations. In particular, this work examines "spirit-possession"— the descent of gods, ghosts, or ancestors, and their habitation within a human body (1)—during the Song dynasty (Northern: 960-1126; Southern: 1127-1279). In some sense, then, Society and the Supernatural in Song China is a social history of spirit-possession and exorcism in twelfth-century China. According to Davis, spirit-possession is a social experience: "Spirit-possession was both a role assumed in public and a shared and universally recognized idiom that allowed an individual person to convert emotion into culture, and symptoms into symbols" (1). Davis in turn draws attention to the relations among various religious specialists during the Song, specifically among Daoist priests (daoshi), so-called Ritual Masters (fashi; a newly-emerging group during the Song) and Tantric exorcists, as well as spirit-mediums. "[M]y aim is to examine the religious interactions and social functions of the Daoist priest, Buddhist monk, Ritual Master, and spirit-medium in local society during the twelfth century, and to present a description of Song religious life richer than any available to date" (4). (For a partial justification of Davis' categorization of Song fashi traditions as "Daoist" see 4-13.) 


The book consists of nine chapters: (1) Introduction; (2) Therapeutic Movements in the Song: Texts; (3) New Therapeutic Movements in the Song: Practitioners; (4) The Cult of the Black Killer; (5) The Daoist Ritual Master and Child-Mediums; (6) Tantric Exorcists and Child-Mediums; (7) Daoist Priests, Confucian Literati, and Child-Mediums; (8) Spirit-Possession and the Grateful Dead: Daoist and Buddhist Mortuary Ritual in the Song; and (9) The Syncretic Field of Chinese Religion. There is also an appendix that discusses the Yellow Register Retreat (huanglu zhai), a Daoist ritual for the dead, in comparison to the Purificatory Fast of Water and Land (shuilu zhai), a Buddhist rite for universal salvation (pudu). 


This book is especially helpful for gaining a more nuanced appreciation of the religious landscape during the Song period, specifically the complex interaction occurring among practitioners and communities usually assumed to participate in distinct traditions (passim). Davis provides important insights concerning the "profound shift" and "sea change" in Daoist history occurring in the Song; this was the emergence and flourishing of "popularized" forms of Daoism associated with the above-mentioned Ritual Masters (especially chs. 2, 3, and 5). According to Davis, the overwhelming concern of these lineages was therapeutic and exorcistic (21). In addition, Society and the Supernatural in Song China covers poorly understood Song traditions of Daoism such as Tianxin (Celestial Heart) and thunder magic (leifa) (especially ch. 2). Although some may find the concluding chapter to be overly theoretical and, at times, an "insider" discussion of critical historiography, it deserves careful reflection by anyone employing a historical approach to the study of Chinese religion. A book this important to the fields of Chinese history, Chinese religion, and Daoist Studies also would have benefited from a more comprehensive and detailed index. Nonetheless, Davis' study is strongly recommended for those researching Song and post-Song religious traditions, for those seeking a fuller understanding of Chinese history, and for anyone engaged in Daoist Studies. In addition, this book clarifies the historical developments that led to some of the defining characteristics of modern Chinese religion, both in mainland China and Taiwan. Research libraries and scholars in Chinese area studies should have this book.


Louis Komjathy

Boston University

Jan 1, 2003